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Chaper 9: 1916 - Under an outdated banner

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On Easter Monday, 24th April 1916, James Connolly embarked on his last great struggle. As vice-president of the Provisional Government and Commandant General of the Dublin Division of the Army of the Irish Republic, he fused the Irish Citizen Army with the revolutionary wing of the Irish Volunteers, under the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), to strike a blow against British imperialism and proclaim an Irish Republic.

Exactly one week later the city centre of Dublin stood in ruins as the Rising was quelled by the relentless fire-power of the armed might of Britain. Its gunboats on the Liffey and its artillery pounded the walls of the half dozen points held by the rebels centred on the General Post Office. Outside Dublin City, in the few centres that rose—County Galway, Enniscorthy and County Dublin—the officers in command reluctantly accepted the order to surrender.

Twelve days later Connolly was executed, the last of the captured leaders to die. The surviving Citizen Army and Irish Volunteer troops were arrested and deported to jails in Britain, interned until an amnesty could be forced from Britain’s hands.

The Easter Rising took the world by surprise. The bourgeois ‘Home Rule’ party of Redmond ranted against the rebels. The Irish Catholic (published by Dublin capitalist boss of the Irish Independent, William Martin Murphy, who unleashed the Dublin Lockout of 1913) wrote after Connolly’s executions: “What was attempted was an act of brigandage pure and simple ... no reason to lament that its perpetrators have met the fate universally reserved for traitors”.

They were soon forced to change their tune. As execution followed cold-blooded execution and internment and deportation mounted, this apparently isolated rebellion registered more and more deeply in the minds and hearts of a down-trodden people. The ‘Home Rule’ party was jettisoned in the 1918 Westminister elections as Sinn Fein, newly wedded to the Irish Republican Army, rose to express the sentiment of the working class and rural masses. Sinn Fein declared the first Dáil in Dublin’s Mansion house in 1919, which was quickly followed by the War of Independence.

A protracted struggle followed in which modern ‘guerrilla warfare’ was born. It was to lead to limited independence, in a partitioned Ireland, by 1922. There followed a year of bloody Civil War in the 26-County Free State as the most conservative section of the Irish bourgeoisie, with English military backing, quelled the revolutionary wing of the republicans who rejected Britain’s Treaty. The outcome was a formally independent but deeply dependent semi-colony of Britain, presided over by a counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie. Ever since, the popular memory of Connolly has been that of a national revolutionary, albeit one who was also a dedicated union organiser. There was no fundamental discontinuity, however, in his apparent transformation from working class organiser to nationalist revolutionary.

The central element of Connolly’s thought, dating back to the mid-1890s at least, was that in the unique conditions of Irish history the collective interests of communal labour were identified with those of the oppressed nation. This conception of the national question persisted throughout his involvement with the International which took him through diverse political experiences from his early Scottish period up to his American period. At times, his operational perspective was dominated by the “orthodoxy” practiced on either side of the Atlantic and, on his return to Ireland in 1910 for his second Irish period, he worked within the framework of industrial unionism and “political action” which he had evolved for himself while in the USA.

It was, however, the underlying populist schema that was to partly reassert itself in the context of the major crisis that broke out—nationally and internationally—in 1914. In that year he witnessed: the rise of Carson in Ulster and the decamping of the Protestant working class to his anti-Home Rule crusade; the defeat of the Irish Transport and General Worker’s Union in February 1914 after seven months of bitter class struggle; the betrayal of the British pledge of Home Rule by attempting to write ‘temporary’ Partition into the Home Rule deal, and the attempt of the Redmond leadership to win acceptance of it in the Irish Parliamentary Party. Most important of all, he witnessed the outbreak of the first World War in August with attendant betrayals in Ireland by Redmond and, internationally, by the reformist and chauvinist leaders of the Social Democratic parties in the major powers. In the context of these events, Connolly was to fall back upon the old schema which justified for him the eventual merging of revolutionary nationalism and the forces of socialism.

From 1910 to March 1914 he attempted to put into practice the ‘syndicalist’ ideas which he had developed in the US from 1903-10. It was not a pure syndicalism in that he never abandoned the tradition of ‘political action’ espoused by his former comrades in Scotland and he believed in building up a political wing for the OBU. The model he developed was outlined in the second part of Socialism Made Easy, written about this time.

As a theory it was fundamentally weak. Firstly, the vital need for a party programme as a guide to struggle was not asserted. Politics was dependent on the degree of industrial control to be achieved by the OBU. Secondly, the theory did not envisage a political confrontation with the state, i.e a combined industrial and armed struggle — a revolution — to smash the coercive power of the bourgeoisie. Instead it posed the mechanical idea of paralysing the industrial base of the capitalist class as the guarantor of the peaceful accession to political power of the political representatives of the working class in a broad church party.

The application of these ideas, however, was complicated in Ireland by the sharply posed national question. During his previous Irish period 1896-1903, the Home Rule movement had been in crisis. By the time of his return in 1910, it had been rebuilt by John Redmond and the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) and was on the point of concluding a deal with Britain for Home Rule. This was a striking challenge to Connolly’s previously central perspective and political premise. For, he had regarded the bourgeois pursuit of Home Rule as a ‘dissolving view’ and had assigned all effective agency against British colonialism to the toiling classes and the socialist movement.

His failure to recognise that Redmondism was indeed a refutation of his earliest political assumptions was to leave him rudderless when Home Rule became a virtual certainty. Worse, after the political watershed of 1914, he would go on to seek confirmation of his previous faith in plebeian nationalism in the new growth of its extreme and revolutionary wing, the petty-bourgeois Irish Republican Brotherhood.

From his return in 1910, he attempted, firstly, to unite the fragments of socialist groups in Dublin and Belfast and elsewhere—i.e. the Socialist Party of Ireland (SPI), the descendant of his old ISRP, and the Independent Labour Party branches in Belfast led by William Walker—into a single organisation. Secondly, after some time in Belfast, he became Larkin’s appointee as district organiser of the ITGWU and set about building it with a will. Thirdly, he sought to implement the dual strategy of ‘industrial unionism’ and ‘political action’ by canvassing the Irish TUC to sponsor the formation of a political wing—an Irish Labour Party. Although unsuccessful in winning this resolution in the 1911 Congress, changed circumstances won over the delegates to his position at Clonmel in 1912.

His perspective was entirely governed by the assumption that Home Rule was inevitable. This led him into a debate with Walker in 1911 on the issue of the organisational separation of the Irish socialist movement from its British allies. Home Rule, argued Connolly, was “almost a certainty of the future”, implicitly guaranteed by the combined forces of Redmond’s Irish Parliamentary Party in Westminster and the Liberal government of Asquith. On this basis, he continued, the task of socialists was to prepare for taking political action in a newly established Irish parliament by equipping the industrial struggle with a political wing.

At the same time he assumed that the existing configuration of political forces was enough to ensure that the tide of militant Carsonism in the north would soon recede. As he wrote, prior to the July 12th demonstrations in 1911:

It may be assumed that the 12th of July parade effort will be made, and no money spared, to make an imposing turnout in the hopes of, at the last moment, averting Home Rule, but the parade will be as the last flicker which blazes up before totally expiring. (Connolly Walker Controversy, Cork Workers Club, p.1).

As late as the summer of 1913 the wind was still in Connolly’s sails. He had succeeded, at least formally, on the Labour Party question. However, he raised no suggestion that it should contest the U.K. parliamentary elections. On the evidence, he had no intention of immediately building a labour party that would challenge the IPP for Westminster seats. He envisaged it as an electoral vehicle in Irish local government and within a future Home Rule parliament. Of course, the weight of Home Rulers within the ITUC itself must have set severe limits to how far that body could have been moved in 1912, and it should be remembered that he did openly attack the IPP for opposing the application in Ireland of progressive British social legislation which would have put a tax on Irish capitalists.

At the May 1913 Trades Union Congress he confined his remarks on the Home Rule Bill to its lack of provision for deputies’ salaries, the absence of a vote for women and of annual parliaments; and its undemocratic upper house. These were important concerns but they did not address the problem of how to guarantee that democratic self-determination would be fully carried through. Less still did Connolly spell out any strategy for the working class of Britain and Ireland to go beyond the limits of combined Home Rule nationalism and British Lib-Labism.

The class substance of the Home Rule nationalists was perceptively summarised by Lenin during the 1913 Lockout:

At the present moment the Irish Nationalists (i.e. the Irish bourgeoisie) are the victors. They are buying up the lands of the English landlords; they are getting national self-government (the famous Home Rule for which a long and stubborn struggle has been going on between Ireland and England); they will freely govern “their own” country jointly with “their own” priests. Well, this Irish Nationalist bourgeoisie is celebrating its “National” victory, its maturity in the “affairs of state” by declaring war to the death on the Irish labour movement (Class War in Dublin, in Lenin on Britain, Progress, Moscow, 1973, p.153).

Lenin identified two key hopes that the strike gave rise to—firstly the extension of class struggle trade unionism throughout Britain following the lead of the Dublin workers, and secondly the shedding of nationalist illusions by the Irish working class through defiance of the capitalists and their Catholic clerical allies. The initial hopes of the struggle depended on the mobilisation of the forces behind the British TUC in supportive strike action, particularly the National Union of Railwaymen and the National Union of Dock Labourers. Even a general strike throughout Britain and Ireland was not impossible. That these failed to materialise was due both to the bureaucratic conservatism of the trade union leadership and the inability of syndicalism to effectively challenge it.

Connolly and Larkin’s own ability to fight for the solidarity of British workers, against the bureaucracy, was greatly weakened since the major links between Ireland and Britain and between north and south had been sundered in the wake of the 1907 Belfast strike and the formation of the breakaway nationalist ITGWU. The 1913 struggle found Connolly, at a time of urgent need for British and all-Ireland solidarity, building separate national organisations of trade unions and labour. While building these organisations in the mould of an expected nation state of the future, he failed to provide a strategy for guaranteeing either that future or the best defence of present gains.

Throughout the Dublin strike the Ulster Volunteers had drilled and marched without interference from the British government. In December 1913 the Liberals introduced a ban on importing arms into Ireland—not because of the UVF but just ten days after the formation of the Irish National Volunteers. In March, following Carson’s threat of open sedition, the Liberals responded to pressure from British Labour ranks and attempted to put British troops in the Curragh Camp on alert for duty in Ulster. The immediate response of some 57 aristocratic officers was to tender their resignations. The government, more fearful than ever of the pro-Unionist Tory forces in Britain’s ruling class, capitulated in what Lenin described as:

an epoch-making turning point—the day when the noble landlords of Britain smashed the British Constitution and British law to bits and gave an excellent lesson in the class struggle ... Real class rule lay and still lies outside of Parliament. (Lenin on Ireland, New Books, Dublin, 1974, pp 16-17).

The ban on importing arms was not enforced when Carson’s followers smuggled 30,000 rifles into Larne for the UVF in April. Thus bolstered, Carson immediately demanded the right of exclusion of any Ulster county that opted out of the Home Rule proposals. It was in this context that the Liberals proposed Partition. Connolly made a desperate appeal to the Labour Party MPs to vote against this exclusion clause. So disillusioned did he become with the Labour leaders that he turned down, uncharacteristically, an invitation to address a May Day rally of workers in Glasgow which would have given him a last chance to appeal to the most class conscious sections to force their leaders to resist partition; for, the third and final reading of the Home Rule Bill was due in May, requiring only royal assent thereafter.

The Irish Volunteers smuggled 1,000 rifles into Dublin on the yacht Asgard—an event which led to British troops firing on civilians in the city centre, killing three and maiming thirty. But before a response could be mustered, news arrived of the outbreak of war in Europe between the ‘great powers’. Redmond eagerly rushed to commit the Irish Volunteers to the war effort—initially intending that they would act as custodians of the Empire in Ireland in order to free British troops for action on the continent. Not surprisingly, this did not wash with the Liberals, but, undaunted, and confident in the mood of the period, he willingly acted as recruiting sergeant for Asquith.

For Redmond, the future of a bourgeois Ireland depended on the survival of the empire, so he did not resist the shelving of Home Rule until the war should be won, although it had already been enacted in September. At Woodenbridge, Redmond called on all “young Irishmen not to confine ‘their effort to remaining at home to defend the shores of Ireland from an unlikely invasion’ but to prove their gallantry ‘wherever the firing line extends, in defence of right, of freedom and religion in this war’.” (Levenson, James Connolly - A Biography, London, 1973, p.259). In fact, a quarter of a million were to leave the poverty and unemployment of Ireland, nationalist and unionist, to fight for the Empire and 30,000 of them died.

Redmond’s recruitment drive led to a split in the Irish Volunteers in September. There emerged the 200,000 member National Volunteers under Redmond and the Irish Volunteers with 12,000 supporting the republican call to repudiate the pledges made by Redmond to Britain. This was a severe blow to Connolly, not least because thousands of demoralised workers who had been in the ITGWU during the lockout were now enlisting in the war drive as cannon fodder of the Home Rule bourgeoisie and of the British Empire, in the vain belief that they were defending the democratic rights of small nations. Connolly could clearly see that a British victory would not, however, vindicate Ireland’s democratic national rights.

Back in Belfast since the end of the Dublin lockout, Connolly got a taste of the crisis that was ripping through the social-democratic Second International and dividing it finally into its chauvinist and revolutionary internationalist wings. Even within the Independent Labour Party (Ireland) branch in Belfast, the first instinct of his ill-prepared comrades was to run for cover. He was outvoted on a proposal to continue outdoor propaganda against the war. He was additionally disorientated by the failure of the “bugles of war” to become the “tocsin of revolution” throughout Europe. He responded by having an anti-war manifesto distributed in Belfast under the name of a fictional Belfast branch of the Irish Citizen Army.

Soon, on returning to Dublin to take up his position as acting general secretary of the ITGWU, as Larkin had left for the USA in October, he set about reconstructing the ailing union with an inspiring will. However, his attention focussed on continuing politics by other means. The Citizen Army was to be re-organised into a drilled, uniformed and armed battalion of workers.

Yet Connolly’s deepening conviction that the road to national insurrection was the only course open to revolutionary socialists in Ireland was not a simple matter of flipping over from syndicalism into nationalism.

The strengths and weaknesses of his politics rest in the fact that he oscillated between militant syndicalism and revolutionary nationalism, but never succeeded in transcending the limits of either. Even though the last two years of his life involve political subordination to revolutionary nationalist forces, culminating in the insurrection, he never abandoned syndicalism. He consciously believed that the Rising would create the conditions in an independent Ireland for the re-emergence of the syndicalist fight for socialism.

The Proletariat and Militarism

In general terms there is no doubt that Connolly belonged to the anti-militarist, anti-imperial chauvinist wing of the International. At its congresses in Stuttgart (1907), Copenhagen (1910), and Basle (1912), the parties of the International debated resolutions on what to do in the event of the outbreak of war. Although Connolly was not a party of these debates directly, he did develop a position that coincided with one of the lines put forward there. Unfortunately, it was not the position argued by Lenin or Luxembourg.

Connolly’s stance was closest to that argued by Keir Hardie, co-founder of the British labour Party and a pacifist, and the French delegate Vaillant who was influenced by the anarcho-syndicalist CGT. They proposed:

Among the means to be used in order to prevent and hinder war the Congress considers as particularly efficacious a general strike especially in the industries that supply war with its implements (arms, ammunition, transport etc.) as well as agitation and popular action in their most active forms. (Motion at Copenhagen, 1910, Haupt, Socialism and the Great War, Oxford, 1972, p.27).

A similar position had been put by Gustav Herve in Stuttgart three years earlier, of which Lenin wrote:

The last day of the congress was devoted to the question of militarism in which everyone took the greatest interest. The notorious Herve tried to defend a very untenable position. He was unable to link war with the capitalist regime in general, and anti-militarist agitation with the entire work of socialism. Herve’s plan of “answering” any war by strike action or an uprising betrayed a complete failure to understand that the employment of one or other means of struggle depends on the objective conditions of the particular crisis, economic or political, precipitated by the war, and not on any previous decision that revolutionaries may have made.

Herve’s one spark of truth, which the revolutionary wing put to the centre of their arguments, noted Lenin, was:

the appeal not to prize only parliamentary methods of struggle, the appeal to act in accordance with the new conditions of a future war and future crises, that was stressed by the Social Democrats, especially by Rosa Luxemburg in her speech. (Lenin: Collected Works,, Vol 13, p.91).

The arguments of Luxemburg succeeded and the original “dogmatically one-sided dead resolution” drafted by Bebel was amended. In its amended form, wrote Clara Zetkin:

the resolution puts forward as a principle that proletarian tactics should be flexible, capable of developing, and sharpening in proportion as conditions ripen for that purpose. (Socialism and the Great War, p.92).

This 1907 approach as well as that adopted by the Lenin/Luxemburg wing in 1910, was diametrically opposed to the criticism made of Herve, Hardie and Valliant by the opportunist wing of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). For them the call for general strikes was to risk incurring illegality or semi-illegality at the hands of the Kaiser. What the Marxists argued was that a general strike was not a special method of fighting war. On its own a general strike would not be sufficient, nor could it be started up at will. The circumstances existing at the time of an outbreak of war—fear of attack, mobilisation and martial law in some instances, war hysteria trumped up by the chauvinist press—all added up to very adverse conditions for fighting for a general strike; except if circumstances were already on the verge of a general strike for reasons connected to the more general class struggle. Such situations could not be expected to be typical. Moreover, war could not be stopped by a general strike alone. An armed insurrection was indispensable, a civil war to defeat one’s “own” bourgeoisie, hardly likely to be on the cards at the opening shots of a war.

In 1915, Connolly expressed the failure of his own wishful view to materialise:

As the reader will gather from my opening remarks, I believe that the Socialist proletariat of Europe in all belligerent countries ought to have refused to march against our brothers across the frontiers and that such refusal would have prevented the war and all its horrors even though it might have led to civil war. (Labour and Easter Week collection, Dublin, 1966, p.54).

It was the view of the revolutionary Marxists on how to fight the impending war, and the Bolsheviks’ further refinements of it, which were borne out by experience. Disorientation and war hysteria made a general strike impossible even in Russia where mass strikes had been taking place in the pre-war months and where many of the Russian workers’ leaders fought resolutely against the war. With the exception of the Russians, Serbs and Bulgarians, official socialist leaderships everywhere succumbed to chauvinism and supported it. Lenin set out to make use of the violent economic and political crisis brought about by the war to rouse the toiling masses and especially the workers, to hasten the abolition of capitalist rule.

By February 1915 he had outlined slogans and tactics to begin to convert the inter-imperialist war into a civil war, including:

1. Absolute refusal to vote war credits and resignation from bourgeois governments
2. A complete break with the policy of class truce (bloc national, Burgfrieden)
3. Formation of an underground organisation wherever the bourgeoisie abolish constitutional liberties by introducing martial law
4. Support for every kind of mass action by the proletariat in general. (Lenin: Collected Works, Vol. 21, p.161).

While ultimately the Bolsheviks led the Russian proletariat to revolution after three years of war, Connolly looked back in confusion on the failure of the International, fought to minimise the attacks on the working class and, in particular, opposed the threat of conscription.

When the government announced taxes to fund the war Connolly replied with a public meeting in September and then with a rash of strikes for wage increases, making some gains. He wrote in the following month:

Some of our class have fought at Flanders and the Dardanelles; the greatest achievement of them combined will weigh but a feather in the balance for good compared with the achievements of those who stayed at home and fought to secure the rights of the working class against invasion. The carnival of murder on the continent will be remembered as a nightmare in the future, will not have the slightest effect in deciding for good the fate of our homes, our wages, our hours, our conditions. But the victories of labour in Ireland will be as footholds, secure and firm, in the upward claim of our class to the fullness and enjoyment of all that labour creates and organised society can provide. Truly labour alone in these days is fighting the real war of civilisation. (Labour & Easter Week Collection, p.90).

Connolly shared a nationalist platform which addressed a mass rally against conscription in November 1915. But employers took the cue of the Lord Lieutenant to ‘facilitate enlistment’ by dismissing selected employees who would then have no option but to join up. Two weeks later he wrote:

We know they can force us to fight whether we wish to or not, but we know also that no force in their possession can decide for us where we will fight. That remains for us to decide; and we have no intention of shedding our blood abroad for our masters: rather will we elect to shed it if need be for the conquest of our freedom at home. (James Connolly - A Biography, p.279).

Unhappily this rhetoric was no guide to action for the labour movement, less still for anyone among the hundreds of thousands of Irish who did enlist into the British army. By contrast, the Bolsheviks organised and agitated in the navy and army. Connolly had no conception of such tactic, a fact not unconnected with his failure to discover what kind of party was needed to fight for socialism.

Blanquist Insurrection

Lenin had argued that the war was one of rival imperialisms in which the lesser evil for socialists in all the major belligerent powers was the defeat of “their own” bourgeoisie. He showed in Imperialism—The Highest Stage of Capitalism how a new epoch had opened in which world capitalism would be incapable of systematic progress except through war, barbarism and the reactionary destruction of historic gains. Connolly, on the other hand, while he certainly hoped for the defeat of imperial Britain, took a different view of Germany. He saw the latter as a developing capitalism which was obstructed along with all other countries by British imperial control of world trade through its command of the seas. He wrote:

I believe that the war could have been prevented by the Socialists; as it was not and the issues are knit I want to see England beaten so thoroughly that the commerce of the seas will be free to all nations, the smallest equally with the greatest. (International Socialist Review, March 1915).

In other words, the military defeat of Britain would open the road to a new period of peace in which, with the further development of capitalism, the as yet undeveloped forces of industrial unionism could grow apace and open the road for the socialist struggle. It was a wrong view, possible only because Connolly didn’t share Lenin’s insight, published only in the same year, into the reactionary character of the new epoch. Believing in the possibility, after a British defeat, of a new period of peaceful world and Irish economic development, it was all the more difficult for Connolly to wage his anti-imperialist struggle in a perspective of class war against capitalism and the defeat of all of the competing imperialist powers in the war.

Such a method would have sought to take advantage of every opportunity created by the savagery and disillusion of the war among Irish soldiers and workers. But it needed to do more. It needed to take up tactical goals that would make the labour movement the most consistent and radical champions of national-democratic rights against Britain. Instead, however, of fighting among the mass of organised labour for an action programme around which labour would be mobilised step by step to assert its leadership in the democratic struggle, While outwardly guiding the One Big Union in its day-to-day activity, he prepared an insurrectionary conspiracy unaccompanied by any guidance to what action the mass of workers should take. And he used the paper of the movement to repeatedly call upon the revolutionary nationalists to support such a course.

He was driven by the fear that any further delay in organising insurrection would only work to the advantage of Britain. The failure of a general strike to emerge anywhere in Europe, the betrayals of Social Democracy—all this was bad enough; but in Ireland the impending betrayal of Home Rule through Partition, the massive enlistment in the war, and the erosion of democratic liberties, left him believing that if the insurrection was not immediately organised it might never happen and Britain would win the war.

Internationally, in the crisis-torn social-democracy, the 1916 Rising became in Lenin’s words “the touchstone of our revolutionary views”. Far from being the pointless project of a bunch of romantic dreamers cut off from the external world, the Easter Rising was fully a part of the ‘epoch of crisis’ of inter-imperialist war and a striking testament to the role that oppressed nations played as ‘bacilli’ in the decay of imperialism. Dublin’s was one among many nationally-inspired revolts such as the suppressed Indian troops’ mutiny in Singapore, the rebellions in French Annam and the German Cameroons and the bloody suppression of the defiant Czechs by the Austrian imperial government.

The war had shaken the socialist Second International to its foundations, polarising it into revolutionary and chauvinist wings. For Germany’s Kautsky and Russia’s Plekhanov such national struggles were not only pointless but downright reactionary. But behind this condemnation of the rebellion of small nations was the sickening chauvinism and patriotism of the great imperialist powers.

But for the left, and leftward moving elements who remained uncertain of their ground in the transition of capitalism into its imperialist epoch, the Easter events of 1916 were also a bone of bitter contention. Lenin had, throughout the war and increasingly in 1916 prior to the Rising, been re-working his analysis of the national question—and seeing the new epoch of capitalist imperialism itself as the foundation stone of the socialist attitude. The Rising was a factual verification of the substance of his criticisms of the left around Luxembourg, Radek and others, because of the concessions they unwittingly made to the Kautskyan renegades.

Karl Radek, the exiled Polish Communist, claimed that because the Irish agrarian question was effectively solved from above by Britain the national uprising remained a “purely urban, petty-bourgeois movement, which, notwithstanding the sensation it caused, had not much backing”. He not only ascribed the 1916 Rising exclusively to urban petty-bourgeois nationalists, but said that it “amounted only to a putsch that the British government easily disposed of”.

Lenin wrote a fierce reply to Radek in July 1916 in which he said:

The term ‘putsch’ in the scientific sense of the term may be employed when the attempt at insurrection has revealed nothing but a circle of conspirators or stupid maniacs and has aroused no sympathy among the masses. The centuries old Irish national movement, having passed through various stages and combinations of class interests, manifested itself, in particular, in a mass Irish National Congress in America which called for Irish independence; it also manifested itself in street fighting conducted by a section of the urban petty bourgeoisie and a section of workers after a long period of mass agitation, demonstrations, suppression of newspapers, etc. Whoever calls such a rebellion a ‘putsch’ is either a hardened reactionary, or a doctrinaire hopelessly incapable of envisaging a social revolution as a living phenomenon. (Lenin on Ireland, p.32).

Yet Lenin’s arguments have, through the warp and weft of subsequent history, been treated as an uncritical celebration of the substance and form of the 1916 Rising. Stalinists who have turned against the whole method of Lenin in order to justify popular front subordination to ‘progressive’ bourgeois forces, and Irish ‘left republicans’ who in the final analysis always insist that ‘labour must wait’ in the interests of the anti-imperialist struggle of oppressed nations, are guilty of such a reading of Lenin. In fact, Lenin’s analysis of 1916 was by no means uncritical. He wrote:

The dialectics of history are such that small nations powerless as an independent factor in the struggle against imperialism, play a part as one of the ferments, one of the bacilli, which help the real anti-imperialist force, the socialist proletariat, to make its appearance on the scene … It is the misfortune of the Irish that they rose prematurely, before the revolt of the European proletariat had time to mature. (Lenin: Collected Works, Vol. 22, pp 357-358).

Taken as a whole, Lenin’s defence of the Easter Rising had, as its immediate focus, the fight against imperialist chauvinism which had poisoned the right wing of social-democracy—from Britain’s Hyndman to Russia’s Plekhanov—and the fight to clarify the lefts who had not yet adopted an unequivocal position on the right of nations to self-determination, for they lacked a concrete understanding of the imperialist epoch. As such, Lenin’s criticisms of the Rising are all the more notable since he was not concentrating on the role and tasks of socialists in an oppressed nation, but on the duty, as internationalists, of those in oppressor nations.

Was Lenin here stating that 1916 represented a “social revolution” as some have wished to imply? The Rising is no way aimed at putting an end to capitalism. It did not even pose any agrarian social overturn on behalf of landless farmers, for the land question had for the most part been defused. Lenin analysed it, therefore, entirely as an expression of a national struggle, i.e the political struggle for a seceded nation state.

We stand four-square with Lenin in rejecting Radek’s “putsch” allegation. The Rising, however, did not at all correspond to the methods of proletarian revolution. In fact, it reduced the task of revolution to mere insurrection, a mistake which Marx and Engels had critically exposed in detail in their writings. When contrasted with such events as the 1905 and 1917 revolutions in Russia, the 1916 Rising is seen to have been an undertaking initiated by a minority behind the backs of the masses, instead of being the peak of an open mobilisation of the masses by the revolutionary minority. Consistent with the Marxist tradition expressed in the analysis of the revolutions of 1848, we believe that Connolly’s role in the 1916 Rising may legitimately be characterised, and faulted, as Blanquist. August Blanqui coined the term ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’—later transformed by Marx—and was the inspiration of the June 1848 challenge to bourgeois class rule. However, Marx rejected his abstract conspiratorial tactics. Trotsky wrote:

Conspiracy does not take the place of insurrection. An active minority of the proletariat, no matter how well organised, cannot seize the power regardless of the general conditions of the country. In this point history has condemned Blanquism. But only in this. His affirmative theorem retains all its force. In order to conquer the power, the proletariat needs more than a spontaneous insurrection. It needs a suitable organisation, it needs a plan; it needs a conspiracy. Such is the Leninist view of this question. (The Art of Insurrection, in History of the Russian Revolution, Victor Gollanz, London 1965, p.1020)

Trotsky, writing at the same time as Lenin about the Dublin events, did not share Radek’s dismissal of it as a putsch. He attacked Plekhanov’s article as “shameless” for describing the Rising as “harmful” and praised the heroism and courage of the fighters. His article contained a perceptive grasp of the class relations of Irish society at the time but his general prognosis for the Irish revolution was proven to be plainly wrong by history—on one side. He argued after the defeat—“The historical basis for the national revolution had disappeared even in backward Ireland.”

Clearly he was wrong inasmuch as the subsequent years saw a renewed national struggle in the form of guerrilla warfare. That it ultimately compromised with imperialism on the basis of partitioning the country into two states, both profoundly stunted from the standpoint of democracy and social development, lends a broader validity, however, to Trotsky’s prognosis. His original insight into the prospects for bourgeois democratic revolution in the new historical epoch (verified in his prognosis and programme for the Russian revolution) saw that modern imperialism made it virtually impossible for a bourgeoisie in a backward society to free itself from imperialism and carry through the social tasks of the classical bourgeoisie—independent industrialisation.

What he did not foresee then, perhaps, was that even where the colonised bourgeoisie was weak and deeply compromised with imperialism, a revolutionary-democratic struggle might yet emerge under petty-bourgeois leadership and succeed in wresting formal political independence from the old colonial power. Indeed Ireland’s struggle was one of the earliest of this kind, one of many more right through this century up to Zimbabwe, in which a colony is transformed into an economic semi-colony, out of a struggle led by petty-bourgeois and weak bourgeois forces.

Trotsky’s prognosis was valid for Ireland, therefore, in that there was no material basis for a bourgeoisie capable and willing to carry through the historic social tasks of the bourgeois revolution. It would have been of little use, however, as an immediate political perspective to guide revolutionary Irish workers immediately after 1916, but then he could only observe the situation from a distance.

No-one had yet clearly theorised the possibility of formal independence being wrested from imperialism by popular struggle under petty-bourgeois leadership. Such an outcome meant that the major political tasks of the national revolution (formal independence, democratic parliament) might be carried out but that the social and economic mission of the independent bourgeois nation state would be aborted by continued imperialist domination.

The strength of Trotsky’s article lies in identifying the significant role of the working class forces and his prognosis that the future was theirs:

The young Irish working class, taking shape in an atmosphere saturated with the heroic recollections of national rebellions, and clashing with the egoistic, narrow-minded imperial arrogance of British trade unionism, naturally swing between nationalism and syndicalism, ever ready to unite these two concepts in their revolutionary consciousness ... The experience (of an Irish national rebellion) in which Casement’s undoubted personal courage represented the hopes and methods of the past, is over. But the historical role of the Irish proletariat is only beginning. Already it has injected its class resentment against militarism and imperialism, under an outdated banner, into this uprising. That resentment from now on will not subside. (L. Trotsky, Results of the Dublin Events, in Nashe Slovo, 4 July 1916, translated in Trotsky’s Writings on Britain, Newpark, 1974).

Lowering the Red to the Green

The larger force in the 1916 Rising was a section of the Irish Volunteers under the lead of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. The IRB was built in Ireland after 1907 by returned US emigrant Tom Clarke, himself born in 1850. It was a secret conspiratorial organisation which continued the revolutionary republicanism of the Fenian movement arising among the dispossessed and emigrants in the post-famine period. The Fenians created the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood in Ireland in 1858 and won a large organised following in the USA where a Fenian Brotherhood convened in 1863. Against a background of rising agrarian agitation, the Fenians planned an insurrection which was aborted in 1867. British spies broke the conspiracy.

Some elements of the Fenians had close connections with the First International through which Marx and Engels fought for solidarity with their anti-imperialist cause, while recording their sharp criticisms of Fenian methods, but the Fenian philosophy had no place for the creation of any consciously socialist or working class organisation. Their political perspectives were revolutionary, republican, and thoroughly marked by the outlook of the petty-bourgeois classes.

The Republican Brotherhood of 1907 had even fewer connections with the dispossessed and the proletariat than its Fenian predecessors, either in social origins or political sympathies. In the course of the 1913 Lockout and subsequent labour struggles, the most that Connolly could say in their favour was that some elements among them were beginning to show a sympathy with the cause of Labour.

Indeed the IRB advanced no social programme. Insurrection with the aim of national sovereignty was the sole point of their programme. The shibboleths of the 1916 Proclamation which aimed to “cherish all the children of the nation equally” were no more radical than similar rhetoric used time and again by the developing bourgeois classes for whom it served solely to muster popular sympathy against feudal or colonial obstacles to bourgeois class rule.

Tragically, Connolly’s overarching focus on the need for insurrection profoundly altered his own operative programme during the war years. In the Workers Republic in January 1916 immediately after joining the IRB conspiracy, he answered at length the question—“What is Our Programme?”. There we find nothing whatever with which the IRB could disagree, nothing at all of a fighting socialist character:

Mark well then our programme. While the war lasts and Ireland still is a subject nation we shall continue to urge her to fight for her freedom. We shall continue, in season and out of season, to teach that the “far-flung battle line” of England is weakest at the point nearest its heart, that Ireland is in that position of tactical advantage ... But the moment peace is once admitted by the British Government as being a subject ripe for discussion, that moment our policy will be peace and in direct opposition to all talk or preparation for armed revolution. We will be no party to leading out Irish patriots to meet the might of an England at peace. The moment peace is in the air we shall strictly confine ourselves, and lend all our influence to the work of turning the thought of Labour in Ireland to the work of peaceful reconstruction. (Labour & Easter Week collection, p.139).

In the middle of January 1916, fearful of precipitate action by Connolly, the IRB reputedly ‘kidnapped’ him for a few days during which Pearse told Connolly of the plan for an Easter rebellion, that Casement was in Germany recruiting a brigade of Irish prisoners of war and that Germany would supply arms and ammunition. Connolly from that moment became co-leader of the rebellion.

The basis of Connolly’s alliance with the IRB and the whole of his public propaganda in the lead-up to 1916 show that Connolly did not consciously seek to independently assert, let alone fight for at that time, a socialist programme. It was the abandonment of a principle long established since Marx, in 1850, referring to the working class, wrote:

But they themselves must contribute to their final victory, by informing themselves of their own class interest, by taking up their independent political position as soon as possible, not by allowing themselves to be misled by the democratic phrase of the democratic petty bourgeoisie into doubting for one minute the necessity of an independently organised party of the proletariat. Their battle cry must be: The Permanent Revolution. (Address of the Central Committee—March 1850, in The Revolutions of 1848, Penguin, p.330).

Connolly’s orientation in the year before the Rising was certainly not consistent with this principle, repeatedly asserted by the revolutionary socialist movement. Politically he dissolved the ICA into the Volunteer rebellion. He wrote in the Workers Republic in June 1915:

In this battle, the lines of which are now being traced, it will be the duty of every lover of the country and the race to forget all minor dividing lines and issues and in contemplating the work before us to seek earnestly after the unity of progressive forces. (Workers Republic paper, Vol. 1, no. 4, 1915).

Later he wrote, referring back to 1913:

Out of that experience is growing the feeling of identity of interests between the forces of real nationalism and labour which we have long worked and hoped for in Ireland. Labour recognises daily more clearly that its real well being is linked and bound up with the hope of growth of Irish resources within Ireland; and nationalists realise that the real progress of a nation towards freedom must be measured by the progress of its most subject class. (Labour & Easter Week collection, p.124).

The whole weight of his propaganda in the period was of this tenor. And if evidence be needed from the Rising itself, there is the sacred tablet of the subsequent bourgeois republic, the 1916 Proclamation, written jointly with Connolly and stating the aims of the rebellion. It has not a single feature to rescue it from the category of radical democratic proclamations in general. It is certainly in no way a proletarian socialist document. Nor did Connolly independently state any other programme for his forces in the Rising.

He was in fact the most resolute leader in carrying out the insurrection, but the IRB were in unchallenged control, politically and militarily throughout. Despite his articles on revolutionary warfare in Workers Republic in 1916, Connolly seems not to have applied in Easter week the important lessons spelt out there. The articles had drawn the lessons of Russia in 1905, Lexington 1775, Paris 1830 and Alamo 1821. In ‘Moscow Insurrection 1905’ and ‘Street fighting—summary’ the stress is on the importance of involving the city masses:

Every difficulty that exists for the operation of regular troops in mountains is multiplied a hundredfold in a city. And the difficulty of the commissariat which is likely to be insuperable to an irregular or popular force taking to the mountains, is solved for them by the sympathies of the populace when they take to the streets. (P. Beresford Ellis, Selected Writings of James Connolly, Penguin, London, 1973, p.230).

An example of this failure to mobilise popular support arose on the third day of the Rising when British troops arrived at Amiens Street station. Connolly consulted Pearse about blocking access through North Earl Street and had an Irish Volunteer sent in charge of ten from Connolly’s ICA to build and defend a barricade. Onlookers offered to assist in building it and to join the insurgents, but the Volunteer ‘had to refuse because the orders were strict: only Irish Volunteers and Citizen Army soldiers were eligible’. (James Connolly - A Biography, p.303).


Any rounded analysis of Connolly’s struggle to found a fighting socialist movement of the working class must weigh up the central events of his political career. Among those who aspire to socialism in Ireland, the ambiguities of his final heroic enterprise are easily bent to support competing and confused perspectives on how socialists should regard the still unresolved aspects of the historic national struggle.

For these reasons, we have aimed to present a critical analysis which would throw light on the programmatic issues inherent in Connolly’s legacy, criteria on which the tradition of revolutionary socialism would enable us to weigh up and evaluate his role. It only remains to state where this analysis leads us to stand on the ‘touchstone’ of the Easter Rising.

Firstly, we say that Connolly was wrong to lower the red flag to the green, to subordinate the working class programme to that of the revolutionary democratic petty bourgeoisie. The legacy of that error is still visited on the Irish working class in the appropriation by Sinn Fein of the mantle of Connolly in the name of an anti-imperialist programme that, even if fully carried out, would never bring the working class to power.

Secondly, we hold that, even had Connolly been determined to conduct the Rising on the principled basis of making independent fighting propaganda for the most concrete necessary action by the working class, he still would have been wrong to call for or organise an insurrection against British rule in the conditions of 1916 where, by no stretch of the imagination, were any significant working class forces prepared for revolutionary struggle.

And what of the Rising itself as a historic reality? Lenin and Trotsky, from an internationalist standpoint, and from outside Ireland, were powerless to intervene as a political factor in the Dublin of 1916. We too, many decades later, are equally powerless to determine a different course on the part of the working class leaders in Dublin as the revolutionary ferment was maturing throughout the capitalist world. Though powerless to intervene our understanding of the questions of programme is enriched by the struggles of Bolshevism, the Comintern and Fourth International in their revolutionary periods, and the struggles of millions of workers since 1916. But like Lenin and Trotsky, however vital our criticisms, we stand by the Rising and defend it as objectively a heroic and historically progressive blow directed at the heart of imperialism, a blow, therefore, for the proletariat and oppressed everywhere.

The tragedy of Connolly and the Easter Rising is that the founder of the Irish socialist movement, a heroic figure of renown to every Irish worker, confused rather than clarified, in the most testing moment, a crucial task that faced and still faces our class.

Today the working class is powerfully organised and potentially dominant yet politically paralysed; while alongside it the inheritors of the IRB carry the torch of political radicalism in Ireland. The uneven and combined development of Irish society puts more clearly to the fore in our time the tasks of socialist class struggle, but it does so in a nation which remains divided by imperialist partition; in a country whose economic development has proceeded on a semi-colonial basis, dominated by modern capitalist imperialism. The wellsprings of radical nationalism, far from running out, have been sustained by the experience of national oppression in the northern state and underdevelopment and emigration in the south.

For socialists the issue remains—what strategy, tactics and organisation can enable the working class to take the lead in resolving the remaining democratic tasks in this island as part of its own independent class struggle against capitalism, for the Workers’ Republic as a step on the road to socialist revolution internationally?